The Poetics of Manhood?
Nonverbal Behavior in Catullus 51

Christina A. Clark

In her important article, "Ego Mulier: The Construction of Male Sexuality in Catullus," Marilyn Skinner argues that Catullus skillfully articulates "the conflicts within Roman male subjectivity"; his poetry bears witness "to the existence of a pathetic - one might well call it 'pathic' - impasse built into the cultural injunction to maintain staunch control" (146). "Homology of sexual and social dominance so extreme so as to result in conceptual fusion made psychic virility extraordinarily sensitive to the slightest lessening of dignitas, 'prestige', while stigmatizing failure as effeminate. Insecurities engendered by the political upheavals of the first century BCE could therefore be vented only through "playing the other," to use Zeitlin's phrase (1985: 80-81) - through recourse to erotic or mythic fantasy in which the reader vicariously shared an anguish voiced through a counterfeit feminine persona" (146). Skinner, following Wiseman (1985: 152-55), argues that "(p)rogammatically for the Lesbia cycle, the speaker of poem 51 adopts a female literary persona, inscribing his private declaration of passion into three renowned stanzas by Sappho."

While Skinner's arguments are powerful and convincing, they do not entirely work for Catullus 51. By looking at Sappho 31 and Catullus 51 in terms of the representation of gendered nonverbal behaviors, I show that while Catullus presents his male speaker as violently affected internally, he maintains a rigid control of his speaker's external appearance. We cannot know whether the poet did this consciously or unconsciously - regardless, his speaker, even as he "plays the other" with his emotions, nevertheless adheres to his culture's expectation that men maintain self-control, at least as far as appearance goes. Because Rome was a contest society, Romans were both members and objects of a 'forest of eyes' (Gleason's phrase, 1990: 389). They were highly attuned to bodily messages – their own, and those of others. "The Roman sense of embodiment was not only keen but brittle" (Barton 2001: 75). By studying the codes and conventions of Roman nonverbal behavior, we can understand why Catullus changes Sappho 31 in important ways. The first four and a half lines of 51 reflect the same situation as 31: the sight of a man and a woman interacting closely provokes an immediate physical reaction within the speaker, who calls himself miser, the usual epithet for an unhappy lover. However, the poet omits Sappho's descriptions of her speaker's disempowering affect displays: he gives us no sweat, no trembling, no pallor. Indeed, he gives us no pounding heart! Catullus tells us only that the situation misero . . . omnis/eripit sensus mihi. Instead of detailing the affect displays that reveal strong emotion, Catullus tells us only of his internal symptoms: his torpid tongue, internal heat (tenuis flamma for the Greek leptos pur), ear ringing and visual blackout. Someone looking at the speaker would have no idea he was experiencing amor. Some scholars argue that Catullus omits Sappho's fourth stanza because "it is essentially feminine," and thus inappropriate for the male speaker (Bickel, Schnelle and Friedrich). I examine this idea more closely, looking at the vocabulary with which Catullus describes both men and women in the throes of erotic passion. Using evidence from the rest of the Catullan corpus (63, 64, 68), I argue that the poet omits the affect displays Sappho includes precisely because they are gendered female in Roman thought.

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